Vernon Wells is struggling. Everyone knows it, not least of all Wells himself. His body language is practically crying out, “Yeah, I know I’ve been sucking all year; I really am trying, though!” His face is screwed into an almost permanent grimace of frustration. Predictably, he’s begun squeezing at the plate—yet by trying so hard to bust out of his season-long slump he’s actually made it worse.
But why boo him? Right now, unless he gets on base, every Vernon Wells at-bat ends with a chorus of boos. In fact, there’s a growing number of “fans” booing Wells as he walks between the on-deck circle and the batter’s box. Granted, he’s struggling—but so are a lot of other Blue Jays, including (most recently) Roy Halladay. What separates Wells from his teammates—we’re guessing here—can be summed up thusly: “He signed a huge contract! Seven years, $126-million! He’s got to be better than this!” Well, maybe he does, but Wells’ contract, as gargantuan as it is, shouldn’t be held against him. When Wells re-signed with Toronto he was coming off a great year (.303 batting average/32 home runs/106 runs batted in). There was tremendous fear he’d parlay that into a lucrative deal with, say, the New York Yankees (who were practically begging for a centre fielder whose name wasn’t Melky Cabrera at the time). His contract was market value for a player of his calibre—not to mention a player in the prime of his career who was seen as being vital to Toronto’s future success. Contrary to what revisionist historians may tell you, the Blue Jays did not overpay (at least not in baseball terms) for Vernon Wells. Sure, he was expensive, but most good players are. And Wells was really good in 2006…not to mention in 2003, where his numbers stack up favourably with pretty much any individual year in team history.
Wells struggled in 2007, but rebounded nicely last season (.300/20/78 despite being limited to 108 games). And while he’s fallen off again this year, that’s no reason to write him off or to boo him when he doesn’t get on base (his current on-base percentage is a measly .303). Next time you’re at Rogers Centre, watch his reaction if (when?) he strikes out. Wells knows he’s struggling; it’s a difficult fact to ignore, what with his numbers staring down on him from the stadium’s scoreboards. He doesn’t need his own fans to remind him. It can be argued that being booed is part and parcel of being a Major League Baseball player. That may be so—but what does booing Wells accomplish?
Wells has four years left on his contract, and given its size and its duration he’s not likely going anywhere. He’s a part of the Blue Jays, whether you like it or not—so instead of booing him, give positive reinforcement a try. Earlier this year, Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz was struggling far, far worse than Wells…and the Fenway faithful responded not with boos but with cheers, along with a curtain call after he hit his first home run of the season (against the Blue Jays, no less). As Bill Simmons notes, if we’re trying “to light a fire under a specific player, [booing ends] up making him even more nervous and tentative. So why boo in the first place? Trust me, dead silence sends a bigger message than anything. And it’s not potentially destructive.” We’re not suggesting silence is golden, that it’ll magically turn Wells’ season around. But if you were a professional athlete and were dealing with as much pressure as you’ve likely ever faced, a bit of positive reinforcement from the stands might go a long way.